Volume 8 | Issue 1 | Spring 2007
a coin in his pocket for the bus,
sad sacks standing behind
man behind the glass reached into that scoop for exchanging money but
A desperate breath grabbed from behind: "I’ll do it, whatever it is--"
"No, I’ll do it."
The city needed a laborer at
His one grey wool suit disguised
Talk along the line towards Court Street
had been peppered with "hope"
and "looking up," but no one clamored for
needed more than noodles to make a meal of; even the baby had quit
wanted his own cup of milk to gulp.
loved that she was as shrewd in small business arrangement as she was
parsimonious with the household funds, yet funneling an overflow of her
gifts to him in private, husband-wife moments. She
had an eye for what could be saved. "Waste
not, want not," she’d say, scraping leftovers onto
plate and covering them with a towel to store in the icebox to stretch
more miraculous meal. She’d keep a stray
thread if its length looked to be useful. But
walked the incline of
The baby was teething and last night they finally let Doc slit the baby’s gums for all their relief.
"But we have nothing to pay you with."
Doc waved his hand at Mary. "You can do my shirts." With five words he’d reduced her from land lady to wash-woman.
Then the man proceeded to strip from his back what he’d worn three days in a row, paraded among them with his beefy arms sprouting from the sleeveless undershirt, practically shoving the tattoo of a mermaid on his bicep under Mary’s nose as he handed her the laundry.
Mary nodded. "Of course." She went to start water boiling in the kitchen next to the wringer, trailing Doc’s sleeves on the floor behind her.
"Thank you, kind lady," Doc said to her straight, proud back.
Mary did not respond.
You don’t owe him a thing,
Doc rubbed the baby’s gum with whiskey-soaked cotton.
Doc said. "No scalpel needed." He laughed, flaunting the gold in each of his
molars, and the joke launched him into a coughing fit he quelled with a
the same whiskey with which he’d dosed the baby. Within
the hour both Albert and Doc were
snoring in the front room. The baby lay
on the rug, wrapped tightly in his blanket. Doc
sprawled in the chair where his patients waited. His
head was flung back in the kind of
crooked sleep that might leave his neck aching for days.
Richard leapt from the wrought iron and onto his leg, stuck there like a burr to dog’s fur. He both hugged the boy and tried to disengage his clutches.
"What are you doing out here?" he said.
had been jostling the baby in her lap, in a lap full of roses. She usually wore an apron to protect the few
good things she had, but this flowered skirt was not one of those. Many times washed out, the reds had faded to
rose and pink, the greens pale as new grass. It
was a dress she’d worn often during their courtship
raised her face to
took his hand from inside his pants pocket
where his fingers had been softening the crumpled job assignment with
sweat. He sat next to her and touched
her shoulder. Richard pounced on his
knee and it was all
"We haven’t a match to light the stove," she said. "We’re waiting for the post man, to ask him for a borrow."
Mary was no complainer. The world had wheeled into depression and stuck there. They took in Doc as their boarder.
It wasn’t grave digging they wanted him for. He’d misunderstood.
The job sent
"Your job," Mr. Philburn said, "is to locate the markers, transcribe the ID number, return the records to me here at the desk. We’ll do the cross reference."
Work contrived for a pansy, he could imagine Doc Hadley pronouncing once he’d heard the details, but he was grateful for it, for the wandering solitude it afforded him among the peony bushes and great oaks and maples and weeping willows. He appreciated the solemnity of the place, the elegant wild ivy grown up over summer and now curling back to reveal whole clans, the straight edge of stone and chisel, the exactitude of letters and numbers, some grooves so old and lichen-covered they could no longer be read. Whole families disappeared, wiped out by disease, it could happen.
"Pushing up daisies," Doc Hadley would say. He was callous, had a bedside manner the ill would face the wall to escape. What soft words he managed, he saved up for Mary.
The air of the house, each dust mote, had wed itself to the aroma of Mary’s last batch of tomato sauce -- how he loved happening upon a lingering pocket of it in the alcove where he hung his coat and heeled off his shoes. He imagined drawing this feeling of home close, a protective cloak to buffer what waited past the kitchen doorway. He was nervous and chilled though he was inside now and should have been feeling the warmth of this hallway that seemed to run on forever, the kitchen lamp far off, with its burning news.
"The fever’s on Mary," Doc Hadley said.
He tended an egg bubbling in a pot of water as the boys watched sand spill through the glass on the kitchen table. They yelled through the last of the three minutes, as if time was running out on a horse race.
Doc hitched his gruesome yellowed thumbnail at the boys, long and curved like the one he’d used to rip open Albert’s gum. "My little helpers," he said.
"Almost," Richard yelled. "Pretty soon. Going, going, gone!" The boy’s voice pitched through the roof. He pounded the table and Albert pounded because Richard did.
boys flinched and ran from the table, whooping like Indians out the
and into the evening.
Doc Hadley drained the water off and wrapped the egg in a towel.
she made your breakfast she went back to bed," he said.
He seemed to cower as he cracked the egg and
scooped out the soft innards, and then had to peer closely to pick out
pieces of shell splintered in, the way
pressed the bowl into
"What did you do for her?" Surely, with a doctor in the house, they were ahead of the game.
"It’s your line of work."
Hadley started to shuffle past
and carbolic soap and rubbing alcohol crowded
Then he continued up the stairs, his stocking feet and the thin carpet accomplices in stealth. Because he couldn’t hear his own footsteps, he was plagued by the feeling that he had no weight in the world.
The graveyard shadowed him more under his own roof than when he’d walked among its headstones and monuments. He seemed to bring its damp into the bedroom with him. He fed it to Mary with her egg, one drippy spoonful at a time. Her weak smile at him when she swallowed, shy and half-cast through her wet eyelashes, was her apology for being laid up. This same glance, when they were younger and courting, had sapped his strength. It made him blurry even now. They could both be laid up here in bed, give in to all they’d been battling –debt, lack of work, the obligations of rent and IOU’s, the things they forfeited so in the end they could have just a little to cup in their hands and marvel at.
bathe and feed Albert and Richard,"
He nodded and she nodded, though hers was absorbed into her pillow. Exhaustion had erased her usual blush. He touched her sweaty, matted hair, and she put her hand to his.
"The boys," she said, her voice a whispery gurgle. She cleared her throat and pointed at her neck. "The egg’s made me phlegmy."
He nodded. "I’ll get them to bed. You rest now, Mary."
"I’m cold," she said.
He felt her feverish forehead, and rested his palm a moment at the open throat of her nightgown. Her rapid pulse scared him.
"I’ll take care of it."
He ran the tap until hot water coursed through the bathroom pipes. How the water bottle flopped in his hands as he tried to fill it, then he had trouble threading the screw lid on correctly. He didn’t want it leaking and scalding Mary, or soaking her night dress.
she take such a turn? Was today so
different? Then he remembered how she’d
fled into the kitchen to start boiling water to wash Doc’s shirts night
last. How she was up late sudsing the
old man’s dirt from his cuffs and collars in the sink, her knuckles
when she shoved the fabric against the washboard and then rinsing and
it through the wringer, wet thrown on the lap of her dress and up past
elbows. It was a messy job.
Nice of Doc to boil up that egg, though couldn’t he give her something to break the fever? Cantankerous old man around the house, at their table, in their front room where they had to shush the boys while Doc rustled the newspaper – "Trying to read," he’d mutter.
was at the end of swallowing something he’d given her.
An elixir or a tablet,
old man had cuffed his sleeves and rolled them, constricting his
the elbows. He looked like a saloon
keeper or a telegraph operator.
"Did you give her something for pain?"
hand shot up and
Doc lifted Mary’s covers, lifted Mary’s back. Her dressing gown caught in the sheet, baring her thigh.
"She says her chest hurts,"
Doc shrugged. "Substernal tightness and pain."
"You can hear the congestion when she coughs," Doc said.
must be deaf,
The old man stood. "If you’ll sit with her, I’ll put together a mustard plaster, help loosen what’s stuck there."
A remedy Frederick was familiar with. He’d watch Mary assemble one for Richard when he had the croup, watched her lovely hands stir the mustard and wheat flour with warm water and spread it between two squares of muslin. It was something a mother could do for her son without calling outside help.
Doc Hadley’s bulk in the doorway blotted most of the hallway light. Frederick preferred to let the shadows blunt Mary’s sickness. Watching her eyelids flutter in that first layer of fragile sleep, he said, "She keeps the muslin in the drawer under the dish towels."
"If she wakes give her as much water as she’ll take."
Fredrick nodded but the man continued to shadow Mary’s bed.
"I gave her aspirin for the fever, barbitol for pain so she’ll sleep and quit worrying about those boys."
"I’ll take care of them," Fredrick said. "You take care of her."
Doc’s glasses had slipped down his nose during his exertion in lifting Mary’s hips, and their wire frames still perched low, so when he looked at Fredrick his bloodshot eyes were in no way camouflaged. His smug expression seemed to say, "Well, aren’t we each well-suited to our tasks? I, the medical professional, and you the nursemaid."
were frivolous indulgence, where surgery was noble and necessary, even
performed by a drunk, a drunk who retreated to slap together a mustard
he’d then lay upon Mary’s chest. He’d
need to bare her breasts to do this.
"We want the cough to be loose but not dry," Doc said, his hand curled at her breast. "Believe it or not, we want her to cough some. We don’t want to suppress it so a complication like pneumonia sets in."
Pneumonia and influenza, two diseases that swept through in waves, winnowing neighborhoods, crowding family plots like those Frederick had walked among and nearly shed tears over, in a sentimental and totally removed manner, that very morning.
"It’s complications that more often take patients than the disease."
in the dark,
"Your mother needs to sleep. If I have to get the belt out I will," he said. By the time he’d climbed to the second floor, with their grabby hands trailing along the banister, they’d locked into his seriousness. He put them in the tub together, and scrubbed their soft boy bodies. His sons were slippery fish, drying them took patience, a trick Frederick had never learned though he’d watched Mary, so adept, it seemed hundreds of times.
He lit the stove with another match they couldn’t spare. When butter sizzled in the skillet he spooned some leftover maccheroni and smashed it with the back of a fat wooden spoon. Dinner heated, the noodles softened, and the sauce, with its bits of meat, onions, bay leaves and oregano—the gravy, Mary called it—it bubbled. The sweetness of her leftover cooking invaded, doubled him up, as if he’d cut himself from the inside.
spooned food into squirmy Albert, held him best he could on his lap. Albert leaned to one side then the other,
Richard smeared sauce around his mouth and then licked his tongue wide to draw it back in to entertain Albert, who squealed and squirmed.
playing and just eat it,"
Doc stood in the doorway, the newspaper misfolded and held at his side. From over his spectacles he dismissed them with a shake of his head. "You’re a mess without her," he said. He used his knuckles to shove his glasses to the bridge of his nose so it looked like he’d put a melodramatic "Alas" hand to his forehead.
"What?" Richard said.
He balanced Albert on his other knee. "Nothing. Let’s get done."
Once Fredrick put the boys down for the night, he thought he’d sit with Mary. Maybe she’d smile at him, if only in dream, and he quietly pushed the bedroom door open to find Doc in the chair at her side.
Doc said, "We’ll see how she does overnight."
"You think I’m God, playing some game?"
"I think you‘re a stinking, useless drunk, and now with Mary needing you most."
"Maybe, but there’s no voodoo in this. The fever breaks or it doesn’t. And her heartbeat could stand to come down some."
glow from the bathroom light down the hall illuminated Mary’s profile
shallow-breath sleep, and Doc’s as he sat there, ignoring
Frederick wanted to take her and soothe
fever himself, but he couldn’t slip between the sheets with Doc sitting
there. He retreated into the hallway, to
the bathroom, to survey the little they had in the medicine chest.
Norwich Aspirin, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Hostetter’s Bitters, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral -- the usual druggist remedies for pain, cough, and fever anyone could buy. But Doc should have been their ace in the hole. What he gave Mary should have been more than the ordinary cure-all. And layman that he was, Frederick wanted to have a hand in it.
his stocking feet, he went downstairs. The
front room, the examining room, the dressing room, the
-- all the names for it tripped through his brain.
He glanced at the mismatched newspaper Doc
had tossed aside.
please her, Doc snapped everything up in his black satchel, leather and
and with a broken latch.
Hadley had a book he referred to, his bible he called it, and
Wolf’s bane, Doc’s bible proclaimed, "Increased the power of the heart by slowing it down."
Slow down and think.
power of the heart.
More difficult to conceal a four ounce bottle than one of those tiny tubes, and after he slid Doc’s repacked bag half under the examining table with his foot, he shoved both of his clenched hands in his pants pockets. He held the wolf’s bane in the left of those two fists and walked into the kitchen to clean up the mess from dinner.
the tap water and rinsing the plates helped distract
about Mary’s heart? Is it easing up a
Doc slumped into a chair, pushed back the sauce pot to make room for his liquor. "I told you we’ll see how it goes."
"But what will be your next step, if things don’t turn soon?"
drank again and eyed
"But what did you do to calm her pulse? I mean, what would you recommend if she just doesn’t--"
waved his hand, dismissing
"You have that? How will you give it to her?"
"What do you mean, how will I give it to her?"
it a tablet or will you need to stick her?"
"The strychnine I’d inject." Doc removed his glasses and rubbed his watery, red-rimmed eyes.
"Huh? What do you care?"
"I want her to get well as quick as she can."
Doc shrugged and took another slug, smacking his lips after swallowing like Richard did earlier over Mary’s warmed up cooking. "A little goes a long way."
could have been referring to anything in this world,
little and how far?"
"What?" Doc appraised him, squinting. His eyes disappeared in his swollen face. "Angling to apprentice, are you?" That set him laughing. Then his usual coughing fit aptly punctuated the ridiculous notion.
"A man can never know too much about things he doesn’t understand. Asking is the only way to learn. It’s what I tell Richard."
"Boy sure took that to heart. Questions never stop. Like driving nails into my head."
of tomatoes and burned onions covered the bottom of the sink in a
"A usual dose would be what, Doc?" A slip -- he never called the man by title or name. He shut off the water, dried his hands, and turned to face Doc’s curiosity, but the man had his head in his arms crossed atop the table. He mumbled into his sleeve, rolled halfway up in that bartender look of earlier.
"I didn’t quite hear. Say it again?" He bent so close he smelled Doc’s body odor emanating from the open neck of his shirt, the filth of his unwashed hair, the blunt gin breath Frederick thought he probably carried a bit on his own tongue.
"I could snap you in two."
slipped into the front room, knew exactly where he’d squirreled away
eyedropper when repacking the doctor’s kit. But
Doc had, during
this same house their neighbor’s apartment mirrored their own. And in the divided basement, each side had
its own coal bin for a furnace that needed feeding.
As the only one awake,
"You exaggerate," his father would say. "Always have."
dangering Mary’s no exaggeration,"
to not be left behind, to slow his beloved and make her walk with him,
bolted from the bed, almost stumbling on the carpeted steps when the
chimed eleven. The wolf’s bane in his
pocket thumped his right thigh as he took each step more slowly and
down and into the kitchen. Doc,
half-stuporous, must have shifted his bulk from the chair where he’d
and now lay on the front room floor, the side of his face pressed flat,
lips slack with drool.
The boys’ clothes still sagged on the kitchen linoleum where he’d dropped them after peeling them from their antsy arms and legs, over their heads with the shirts that tugged their hair and their eyes into temporary China-men faces. There’d be time enough for laundry tomorrow. He thought of Mary pressed to do Doc’s shirts.
In the silverware drawer he found the measuring spoons.
drop, Doc said.
What happened to the treads, or anything that might slow him down? He flew in stocking feet to Mary’s bed, his and Mary’s bed, where she dozed, her lips pursing words with no voice. She mouthed secrets no one would hear, especially not Doc Hadley, snoring a floor away, not even Frederick who stood bedside, trying his hardest to lip read.
He held his breath, he held hers, as he tapped a drop of aconite into the measure spoon, where it spread, one drop doubled, suddenly tripled. Then he stirred it into the hot toddy.
Mary mumbled, so close to the surface of waking her eyes were half open.
"Is that you?" she said.
"I am thirsty." She put her head to one side of the pillow and tried rising up on her elbows.
Her glassy eyes seemed focused on the door instead of here beside her, where he sloped the mattress and her body into his. Only the bathroom down the hall emitted light in the whole upstairs of the house. The lamp could be harsh on her feverish eyes and so he resisted his desire to see Mary more clearly, to know for himself what Doc knew.
she did, her lips cherry red on the rim, as only fever could paint
amber sliding past her teeth, her tongue and her throat partners in
swallowing. Her hot breath on
got to drink it all, honey. You’re doing
great. You’ll be fine now."
He refused to let up on pouring the whiskey
into her mouth even when she seemed to need to take a breath. She coughed, they spilled some,
A lucid moment in which she smiled ruefully, roused herself to participate in the old intimacy of ridiculing their tenant. He saw her eyes lock on his, her thoughts clear in their deep brown irises, her pupils a source of wit. "Well, if Doc says so, then . . ."
left the fill-in-the-blank to
Frederick lay beside his wife, imagined her pulse dawdling so he could catch her. Their two hearts were pistons. Beating the same miles per hour, they’d move at one speed, and even if Doc woke and stumbled upstairs to prescribe some new cure, they’d be lengths ahead of him. By then they’d be so far out of town that Mary, and the fact of her illness or her health, would be lost from view, as would be Doc’s furtive, professional shuffling, all his medicine lore, and the shabby rent he pressed into Mary’s apron pocket.
The clock needed winding so Frederick could rise for another day of cemetery work, but he thought he’d rest a minute on the pillow dipping towards Mary, her body shimmering with heat, but her breathing soothed now, thanks to the hot toddy and its extra dose. Given the chance, he could take care of his own wife. As exhaustion stole through his arms and legs, Frederick congratulated himself on the discovery that doctoring wasn’t all chicanery -- yes, some of it was song and dance -- but he’d got hold of just . . . just . . . He drifted, the clock remained unwound.
the dream, he walked among the stones at Spring Grove, and into a
clearing. A woman sat on a bench, her
head bowed and grieving. The markers
around her looked freshly chiseled. Even
"Your job," his father said, in Mr. Philburn’s place behind the office desk, "is to return the names to the bodies."
the scene shifted from Spring Grove to a room where his father held his
high to strike
father lifted him from the bed, his shirt
collar hiked above the back of his neck and the top button in the
strangling. He shook the living
daylights out of
little dirt didn’t deserve this proportion of outburst.
take care of it,"
"You took care of it all right," Doc yelled.
Doc stumbled from the room, as if he was deaf and sealed off from
Doc stumbled from the room, as if he was deaf and sealed off from
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